An ongoing dispute between the European Union and Poland over its government’s apparent lack of respect for democratic values has raised the question of whether Poland could follow the UK in leaving the EU.
The reality, however, is that this is incredibly unlikely. As my research shows, Polish citizens strongly support the EU. They generally take a very rational approach to this issue and recognize that Poland and Poles on an individual level have greatly benefited from EU membership. The EU can suspend rights, but cannot expel a member state.
Other EU member states are divided over what to do about Poland several years after the Law and Justice Party (PiS) started making changes to the Polish legal system. The EU has repeatedly warned that many of these changes undermine the independence of judges and are incompatible with EU values. The European Court of Justice has ruled that a disciplinary chamber for judges set up by the Polish government violated EU law and although the Polish government has promised to dissolve it, this has not yet happened. European Commission now fines Poland 1 million euros per day for not complying with the decision – and Poland refuses to pay.
Poland opposes the EU on the grounds that a Polish court recently made the unprecedented ruling that it is European law that is incompatible with the Polish constitution. But the tribunal is widely seen to have been politically compromised and its ruling is questionable to say the least. It is undoubtedly, in itself, a violation of the Polish constitution. Either way, he certainly raised the bar in the Warsaw impasse with the Commission.
It’s not Brexit
In Poland, there is a disconnect between what the general public thinks of the EU and the path followed by the political elites. The leaders have been antagonistic in recent years in their relations with Brussels. More recently, Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki warned that if the EU “starts the third world war” by imposing financial sanctions for the dispute over the rule of law, it “would defend our rights with all the weapons at our disposal”.
The PiS was not very enthusiastic about Europe, if not totally Eurosceptic when it came to power. But many years have since been spent fighting Brussels, amid an overwhelming public of EU support.
The fears of a “Polexit” are therefore not really born of public opinion. The Polish electorate is not ready to follow the British example and vote to leave. Instead, the debate is taking place at the highest political level – between the Polish and Hungarian governments on one side and the European Union on the other.
Poland and Hungary joined the EU in 2004, but both have suffered from democratic decline. In Poland, the leader of the Eurosceptic PiS party, Jarosław Kaczyński was inspired by Hungarian leader Viktor Orbán’s brand of what Orbán calls “illiberal democracy”.
All the while, support for the EU among the general public in Poland has in fact remained stable – and stood at around 88% in December 2020. It has never fallen below 72% since Poland joined the EU.
A recent analysis The Polish case suggests that this estrangement from democracy is also not something voters support – rather, it is an abuse of power that leaders voluntarily pursued once they got their jobs. We know that the vote for the PiS is rather a conservative vote, based on the defense of traditional family values.
Inside the dispute
The EU has long lacked the tools to prevent member states from descending into autocracy if their governments want it.. Yet the EU still has the power to withhold certain funding, including for agricultural subsidies and infrastructure, if a member state does not respect European values. In this case, he warned Poland that COVID recovery funds will be withheld if the recent decision of the Polish Constitutional Court is upheld.
The EU’s cautious stance so far has encouraged the PiS government to continue abusing the rule of law. A recent meeting of European leaders did not provide an answer to the problem either. The Commission can, however, act unilaterally to suspend payments to Poland and it must do so now.
In addition to rule of law issues, Polish lawmakers are also currently debating a bill to ban LGBTQ pride parades, with a speech in parliament comparing the LGBT rights movement to Nazism.
The European Commission cannot remain inactive. Otherwise, it will set a precedent that EU members can choose which binding EU laws they adhere to and which they ignore.
The current plan is to unlock the first tranche of funding for the COVID recovery, worth 36 billion euros, only after changes have been made to the Polish judicial system. Will it work? Poland seems to have already responded to the European Commission by suspending a judge (the eighth to fall under the jurisdiction of the tribunal). She was suspended for asking preliminary questions to the European Court of Justice and for applying EU law. With this act, Poland is clearly indicating that it intends to continue on the path it has chosen. The time for dialogue is definitely over.